On the morning of Dec. 21, 2019, then-Chicago Bulls head coach Jim Boylen gathered his staff for a routine meeting. His 12-19 team was in dire need of spacing. The franchise’s minor-league affiliate was set to square off against the Lakeland Magic at the annual G League Showcase in Las Vegas. And following that matchup, Boylen declared, Chicago planned to recall two-way rookie Max Strus, a sweet-shooting swingman who’d gone undrafted from DePaul. The Bulls planned to dedicate significant development opportunity to the local kid. Plenty of minutes. Plenty of shots. Plenty of room to make mistakes.
Strus was kept blind to the news. Windy City coaches figured ignorance would provide bliss. Strus had no knowledge as he bounded in transition that evening, the ball between his fingers. He had no concept of the chance waiting for him back home as his left leg planted for a Euro-step around his defender, and then his knee gave out altogether. A night intended to springboard Strus’ career sent his entire dream hurtling toward a horrific crash.
“I thought it was the end of the path,” Strus told Yahoo Sports. “You don’t know if your time is up or if you’re going to get another opportunity. I knew how hard it was to get an opportunity in the first place.”
Few NBA careers begin at the likes of Division II Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois, and then survive a year on the sidelines rehabbing a torn ACL. Fringe prospects can age in dog years before the scouting community. At 23, Strus had already been cut from the Celtics’ training camp that fall. The Bulls hadn’t given Strus an inkling of interest, hadn’t hosted him for a pre-draft workout before swooping in and claiming him off waivers. Landing in Chicago was a surprise as much as a saving grace.
Landing where he’s at now, a consistent starter for Miami, which took Boston to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals last May, afforded the stopover necessary to end his series of false starts. The Heat signed Strus 11 months after his injury, and he has morphed from mid-major marksman into Miami mainstay, setting career highs in minutes (30.5), 3-point attempts (8.1) and scoring (12.9) this season. “I found myself kind of getting comfortable being here,” Strus said. “But I gotta snap out of that really quick and get back to the mindset of showing gratitude and just being happy to be here every single day, because that’s what got me here.”
This was certainly not guaranteed, and frankly seemed destined to fail before it ever began. After sitting as a transfer before joining DePaul on the court, Strus showcased an impressive ability shooting on the move and hurtling around screens. Through a mutual connection, he found his way into a pre-draft training program dubbed “The Preparation,” hosted by several G League coaches in Florida that spring of 2018. While top prospects like Kevin Knox and other sure-fire draft candidates had agents to front such a bill, Strus’ father paid for his spot out of pocket.
He was just searching for a litmus test, fully expecting to return to school for his senior season. “As a young kid trying to make the NBA, you want to at least try,” Strus said. The staff was convinced Strus could get drafted within the first two days. He was the most effective shooter on the floor in full-court, five-on-five battles. When Strus asked for honest feedback, several coaches told him they saw the next Joe Harris, a former second-round selection who fashioned himself into a dangerous outside threat for the plucky Brooklyn Nets.
So Strus returned to Chicago and completed what he was told from DePaul’s athletic department was the necessary paperwork to declare for the NBA draft as an underclassmen. He had workouts lined up with several inquiring teams. Only he was never permitted to participate. He wasn’t allowed to set foot in a facility. While Strus may have fulfilled the NCAA’s requirements for declaring as an early entrant, he was unaware of the simplest box that needed to be checked to turn professional: sending an email to the NBA office, expressing direct — and signed — intent of submitting his name into the draft pool.
“That was like the last step,” Strus told Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t even know what it was supposed to say.” When asked for specifics on how the process could have devolved, his head still shakes and he lets go of a sigh. No bitterness remains in his voice, but a definite lingering sense of confusion. “Still trying to figure it out. I can take the blame, but I didn’t know any better. At the time, DePaul didn’t really have guys that were doing that, so I guess we all learned from it.” By that August, in another cruel twist of fate, the NCAA announced basketball players would be allowed to hire representation, enter the draft and still retain amateur eligibility — allowing the very guidance Strus had truly needed.
His strong senior season didn’t result in a draft selection, either. But Strus joined Boston on a two-way contract for Summer League and into training camp — and the basket looked like an ocean. He splashed 45% of his triples over four July games and carried his efficiency into the preseason. When his deal was converted to a standard training camp contract, it could have been seen as a vote of confidence. The Celtics signed 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall, another undrafted player but of epic proportions, into Strus’ two-way slot. From Roseville to Red Auerbach’s franchise would have been a storybook complete. Only on the last day of training camp, Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens called Strus into a private meeting and revealed they’d chosen Javonte Green, a hyper athlete from Radford University, for the Celtics’ last roster spot.
The Bulls wanted to provide that next opening, but his knee crumbled before the calendar even flipped to 2020. It was first thing in the morning, Strus’ surgery, in the early hours before Windy City even held shootaround for that night’s game in Chicago, yet assistant coach Henry Domercant still went to sit with Strus’ parents in that downtown waiting room. The Bulls’ team doctor, Brian Cole, had performed the same surgery in 2012 to repair Domercant’s own torn ACL he suffered while playing for Galatasaray in Turkey. And knowing exactly what Strus’ injury had upended in Chicago, the young coach offered subtle assurances the couple’s son would return on stable footing within the Bulls’ organization.
Strus was quick to shoot from a chair. Once coaches were allowed back on the court under health and safety protocols, Domercant rebounded when Strus was just allowed to stand and cleared to run in straight lines. They removed the dip from Strus’ form. They tweaked the pattern and rhythm of his feet hitting the floor before loading into a quicker release. “While a lot of people are resistant to change, he embraced it,” Domercant said. “He came out of the pandemic a better player but had nowhere to show it.”
The Bulls, though, no longer presented his safe haven. Gone was Boylen and the front office that hired him. Chicago ownership named Arturas Karnisovas its lead executive and he named Billy Donovan as head coach. Timing can be everything in a business made in moments. Despite Strus’ progress, Chicago didn’t look to retain Strus when free agency began that August. “They saw me working, they saw that I was getting healthy again,” Strus said. “I worked with them every single day. For them to not even give me a chance kind of hurt.”
As his knee grew stronger, Strus ran harder, both to test the fitness of his knee and in preparation for joining the Heat. Miami was mere weeks removed from sprinting to the NBA Finals in the Orlando bubble and offered Strus an Exhibit 10 contract with an ample lane to earn his place.
While conquering the Heat’s notorious conditioning tests, Gabe Vincent, another undrafted guard out of UC Santa Barbara, became Strus' closest ally. They would arrive early to Miami’s pre-practice sessions, which meet an hour before the Heat’s experienced players are called to report. Pre-practices drill precisely what Erik Spoelstra’s actual practices entail, only at actual game speed. “A hundred times faster,” Strus said, “when practice is kind of laid back for the vets.” Walk-throughs became run-throughs, serving as a lightning-quick dress rehearsal, both as conditioning for low-minute players and providing an answer key for the real test still to come. “It was just a lot of being in the gym, earning it,” Strus said. “That just grooms you for when the opportunity comes and we are ready to take advantage.”
Strus and Vincent mark the latest in a long line of Heat development success stories. Both have ebbed and flowed in and out of Miami’s lineup and delivered often when called upon, like Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony and Duncan Robinson before them. When Strus rolled into this year’s training camp, having started all of the Heat’s playoff games, he checked the pre-practice list to learn, only then, that Strus and Vincent had graduated at the same time, like a pair of high schoolers spotting their parts in the school play.
He’s shouting louder on defense, fully versed in Miami’s vaunted culture three seasons into his Heat tenure. Strus’ efficiency has fallen with his heightened number of touches, shooting just 33% from deep after a bristling 41% clip a season ago. Haslem, still Miami’s walking book of Tao, is always looking for windows to whisper into Strus’ ear.
“Take it easy on yourself” is often the veteran’s message. “Max is a little hard on himself. And I’ve been there before. I’ve been there with myself. I’ve expected a lot out of myself, coming from a place where everybody kind of doubts you and you have a chip on your shoulder,” Haslem told Yahoo Sports. “You step in where you always have to prove yourself, you always have to earn everything, you tend to be hard on yourself sometimes. My message to Max, a lot of the time, outside of leading and teaching, is don’t be so hard on yourself sometimes. It’s OK to give yourself a break.”
There is no time to waste, in Strus’ eyes, not when his two-year contract comes to a close at season’s end, and not when the Heat are clawing their way back up the Eastern Conference. “We thought, honestly, it was gonna be pretty easy to connect and get our guys, our group back together,” Strus said. “But we’ve had some growing pains and guys in new roles and some starters going. But I think it’s been good for us and will be good for us in the long run.”